Mavis Wright (1917-2010)
I would like to tell you about my personal experience with a loved one with dementia.
My grandmother Mavis was a very proud woman. We called her 'Nanny'. She kept her house in immaculate condition and took great pride in her physical appearance. For as long as I can remember, she had a jet-black perm and wore a twin-set shirt and skirt, always immaculately ironed.
When I was young, she lived in a detached 3-bedroom home in Prospect, South Australia, that she had owned with her husband Edgar, who passed away before I was born. My memories of that house are fuzzy, but my family often talk about a huge mandarin tree that stood in her back yard, that is said to have produced the best mandarins any of us have ever eaten. I also remember that my Nanny loved flowers. She had a little section of her garden that belonged to me and my sister, where she would plant special flowers just for us.
When she was in her 80s, she downsized to a small independent living community in Lockleys, living in a group of 20 or so units occupied by others her age. She was very happy there. She had a small potted garden out the back and, as she never drove or owned a car, she converted her garage into a playroom for me and my sister. We spent many hours there, playing cards and watching the Sound of Music on repeat. She would spoil us with Cherry Ripes (chocolate-covered cherry bars), custard tarts and home-made banana iceblocks. She also made a mean sponge cake.
Over the years there, she received an ever-increasing degree of formal and informal support in her home. She got a gardener, then a window cleaner, meals on wheels, then nursing assistance with taking medications. But in late 2008, concerns arose about her safety and self-care. She was losing weight, was not eating meals provided by meals on wheels, and started having difficulty using her telephone. We would call to see if she was okay, and she wouldn’t be able to work out how to answer, or would have left the phone off the hook. My parents felt the strain of trying to care for Mavis, whilst also attending to the everyday demands of full-time work and continuing to support me and my sister through school and university.
I was too young at the time to remember the discussions and the decision-making process and was likely not involved, but in the February of 2009 Mavis was moved to long-term care. I have the most vivid memory of the day she moved from her home in Lockleys. Perched on a stool in the front room of her unit, Nanny watched on as family and friends rushed around her, packed up her belongings and moved them out. Usually the epitome of stoicism, that day she cried and cried like I had never seen. That was not a good day.
Shortly after her admission to a long-term care facility, she was diagnosed with dementia. Looking back, it seems very likely that the difficulties she was having at home were the result of early symptoms of undiagnosed dementia. Although I don’t remember ever asking what this transition meant for her, it was clear that it was a significant event and that it was not something that she ever wanted. The loss of her home was a source of great sadness for her and for us, her family.
I honestly don't remember much about her time in residential care. At that time I was working as a kitchenhand in a residential care facility, so perhaps my relative familiarity with such environments rendered this part of Nanny's life unremarkable to me. I remember sitting with Nanny in her room, and rubbing thick moisturising cream into her skinny hands. I also remember that her appearance changed: she lost weight from her usually-rounded face, her perm wore off and the jet-black dye faded. Nanny stayed in the long-term care facility for the rest of her life and died in 2010 at age 93.
My nanny was a woman with likes and dislikes, with a history, with pride, and a family who loved her very much. Yes, she had dementia in her final years, but she was so much more than that. She was my devoted, caring and generous Nanny... who also happened to have dementia.